Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811–96, American novelist and humanitarian, b. Litchfield, Conn. With her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, she stirred the conscience of Americans concerning slavery and thereby influenced the course of American history. The daughter of Lyman Beecher, pastor of the Congregational Church in Litchfield, and the sister of Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet grew up in an atmosphere of New England Congregational piety and, like all the Beechers, early developed an interest in theology and in schemes for improving humanity. In 1824 she went to Hartford, at first to study, later to teach in her sister Catherine's school. When her father became head of Lane Theological Seminary in Cincinnati, she moved to that city with him and there began teaching again and writing. In 1836 she married Professor Calvin Ellis Stowe.

Cincinnati, a border city, was at the time torn with abolitionist conflicts. Harriet's brothers were violently opposed to slavery, and she had seen its effects in Kentucky and had aided a runaway slave. However, it was not until the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act (1850) that she was moved to write on the subject. Uncle Tom's Cabin, first published serially (1851–52) in the abolitionist paper National Era, was not intended as abolitionist propaganda nor was it directed against the South, but slaveholders condemned the book as unfair, and it also crystallized the sentiments of the North. In one year more than 300,000 copies were sold in the United States and over a million in Britain. In addition, its dramatization by G. L. Aiken had a long run. The book was translated into many foreign languages, and when Stowe visited Europe in 1853 numerous honors were bestowed on her.

Her second novel of slavery, Dred (1856), while better constructed and more accurate, failed to recapture the warm characterization of the first. During the 1850s she worked vigorously for the antislavery effort, although she never allied herself with the abolitionists, whom she considered extremists. The mother of six children, she was constantly harassed by financial worries, for despite the great popularity of her books her earnings were never large, and she and her husband were unbusinesslike and overly generous. Interested in other reform movements, such as temperance and woman suffrage, she also wrote religious poems and articles for religious magazines and housekeeping manuals. Her works are generally given to sermonizing, but in The Minister's Wooing (1859) and Old Town Folks (1869) she captures the New England of her childhood.

At her best, Stowe combined literary realism with evangelical fervor. A prolific writer whose works fill 16 volumes, she was chiefly popular because she so aptly expressed the sentiments of the 19th-century middle class. Her works reflect the great issues and events of her century: slavery, women's position in society, the decline of Calvinism, the rise of industry and consumerism, and the birth of a great national literature.

See her life and letters, ed. by A. Fields (1897, repr. 1970); biographies by C. E. Stowe, her son (1889, repr. 1967), R. F. Wilson (1941, repr. 1970), and J. D. Hedrick (1994); studies by J. R. Adams (1963, rev. ed. 1989), M. Reynolds (1985), and D. S. Reynolds (2011).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

FREE! Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Story of Her Life
Charles Edward Stowe; Lyman Beecher Stowe.
Houghton Mifflin, 1911
FREE! Uncle Tom's Cabin
Harriet Beecher Stowe; George H. Thomas.
George Routledge and Sons, 1897
Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp
Harriet Beecher Stowe; Judie Newman.
Ryburn Publishing, 1992
The Oxford Harriet Beecher Stowe Reader
Joan D. Hedrick; Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Oxford University Press, 1999
Narrative in the Professional Age: Transatlantic Readings of Harriet Beecher Stowe, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps
Jennifer Cognard-Black.
Routledge, 2003
The Limits of Sisterhood: The Beecher Sisters on Women's Rights and Woman's Sphere
Jeanne Boydston; Mary Kelley; Anne Margolis.
University of North Carolina Press, 1988
The Character of God: Recovering the Lost Literary Power of American Protestantism
Thomas E. Jenkins.
Oxford University Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. Four "Sympathy and Alienation: Henry Ward Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe"
Identifying the Image of God: Radical Christians and Nonviolent Power in the Antebellum United States
Dan McKanan.
Oxford University Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Epics of Ambivalence: Nonviolent Power in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Antislavery Novels"
Race, Citizenship, and Law in American Literature
Gregg D. Crane.
Cambridge University Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 2 "The Look of Higher Law: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Antislavery Fiction"
Divided Houses: Gender and the Civil War
Catherine Clinton; Nina Silber.
Oxford University Press, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 15 "Writing out the War: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Averted Gaze"
Doing Literary Business: American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century
Susan Coultrap-McQuin.
University of North Carolina Press, 1990
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 4 "The Impact of Domestic Feminism: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Mature Career"
The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change
Michael Hanne.
Berghahn Books, 1994 (Revised edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Harriet Beecher Stowe: Uncle Tome's Cabin (1852)"
The "Tragic Mulatta" Revisited: Race and Nationalism in Nineteenth-Century Antislavery Fiction
Eve Allegra Raimon.
Rutgers University Press, 2004
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Resistant Cassys in Richard Hildreth's The Slave and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin"
Criticism and the Color Line: Desegregating American Literary Studies
Henry B. Wonham.
Rutgers University Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: "The African-American Presence in Stowe's Dred" begins on p. 171
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